Does China exist?

The question of China’s existence or non-existence in the eyes of foreigners is an old one. At least for the early European explorers China really did exist, and more so than most of the other places they visited. It had a government, a ruler, a national character. They were not primitives. All that changed, of course, and eventually China was not there. That was one of the justifications for the Japanese trying to take Taiwan, and probably other things as well. The Qing court did not do the things that a modern state was expected to do, most notably control territory and provide just justice, and therefore it was free ground for real nations to take over.
The Chinese, of course, also did not see themselves as a nation in the same sense that Westerners did. 中國﹐天下﹐孫中山的”一片散沙”etc. This led to a lot of bickering. Two quotes.

The first is an exchange from the American Philippine Commission’s Opium Committee, which toured Asia in 1903-4 looking into the opium situation. One of the people they interviewed was the Reverend Timothy Richards, who is identified as having been resident in China for thirty-three years, and is pretty clearly seen as speaking for China. (The Commission did have some Chinese merchants speak for China as well, but they were not very articulate.)

Q: Is there any Chinese government?
A: If a viceroy does not obey the central government, he will find himself high and dry. It is a government to that extent. The appointment of all high officials is in the hands of the central government.
(Baumler Modern China and Opium: A Reader p. 60)

This exchange takes place in the context of a discussion of Chinese opium suppression policies. China is not doing enough to reform its people to be considered a true state, but Richards does defend China by saying that there is at least a minimal amount of state structure.

The second is from the American journalist Hallet Abend, who was discussing China’s threat to walk out of the League’s opium control system.

Whatever Chinese delegate there has been at Geneva, whether he represented a government the authority of which did not extend beyond the walls of old Peking or whether he represented a government pretending to rule the whole country, China has seemed to regard the League as an organization to be used for bluff and intrigue.
These delegates in succession have not only refused to give facts concerning the growing amount of opium cultivation and opium smoking in China, but by distortion of facts have sought to place upon Great Britain and Japan the blame for the great quantities of narcotics now consumed in China.
The League has sought to keep China as a satisfied member because the Chinese delegate, after all, was the sole representative of an enormous and thickly populated part of Asia, but it has been farcical to pretend that under present conditions China could participate seriously on questions like opium, disarmament, labor legislation or child welfare.
(New York Times Apr. 21, 1929.)

For Abend a nation is capable of collecting facts (and not lying about them), but also participates in the improvement of its own people. Defining a state is now going away from state formations and towards having something like a public sphere and a citizenry. My question is where China sits today. In the early 20th century a nation was pretty clearly defined as a state with power. Today in the western press there is a lot of talk about how China is on the brink of chaos, how it is a place where the rules of the universe (a Rolex is a Rolex) don’t really apply, businessmen are greedy, etc. All this is despite the fact that China clearly does have a government an army and an economy. Where is the locus of place-ness now? Why are we (Americans rather than academics) so uncomfortable with China?

-China does not fit. This works both culturally and politically. China does not bow before Hollywood, both because of pirated DVDs and because Michelle Yeoh could kick Steven Segal’s ass. China is also the only country in the world that still has a 19th-century power politics relationship with the U.S. China is powerful enough that they can tell the Americans to kiss off, and war is a real possibility in the way it is not with Japan and the E.U. China is an exception in almost every way.

-China does not articulate very well where it is going. 1989 was supposed to be a sign that liberal democracy was coming to China, and while it may yet, China’s future path does not really fit any known model. Many people know what the relationship between an editorial in “Le Monde” and “France” is, but what is the Chinese equivalent? China seems to have lots of power and money, too much in fact, but not enough society and transparency.

A lot of this is of course just laziness on the part of Western elites. China is thinkable, and if it is a bit of a special case it is big enough to be worth the mental effort needed to figure it out. It is also caused in part by poor work on the part of professional China interpreters. So, what exactly is it that makes a place a place, and which of these things does China have?


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  2. I wonder if anyone has applied Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore’s size of nations analysis to China. I think one of the things that makes China a special case is that no one has ever attempted to build a modern nation-state of such large geographic and demographic scale.

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